On the recent concluding evening of Terrific Tuesdays, the eight children ages 6-12 from SaintA foster homes got involved in pure fun. They played musical chairs and danced joyfully and vigorously to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.”
But there was a very serious element to the evening when the children were given certificates for completing the 10-week program. As their names were called, each child was lauded for things such as being a good listener and always having a positive attitude, but the other attributes told a fuller story: always being able to take yourself out of a bad mood, having the ability to stay calm, and being very protective of your family.
These children all have serious emotional and behavioral concerns because of the trauma they’ve experienced. The program aimed to help them build resilience and increase their coping skills and strengths – mostly through entertaining activities.
Terrific Tuesdays were held at the Milwaukee Center for Children and Youth, on Martin Luther King Drive in Milwaukee, where Michele Wink is the co-executive director. Jovan Goodman, a SaintA ongoing case manager, is in a master’s of social work program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and needed placement at an agency in her last year of studies. She took things further and, along with Michele, co-developed Terrific Tuesdays. Another SaintA case manager, Megan Pena, also in the MSW program, also helped facilitate with the kids.
The center was a good match for the SaintA children, Jovan said, because it really focuses on trauma informed care, a bedrock of SaintA services. Then Jovan enlisted Above and Beyond Transport, a company used by SaintA that is run by two young African-American men who not only picked up the kids after school, took them to the center, and brought them home, but also acted as confidants and, in some cases, much-needed role models.
Melvin Weakley, one of the owners, said sometimes it was as simple as asking a child how he’s doing or how was your day. He would probe to learn the kids’ interests, from sports to music to video games.
“I find in conversation or interaction, they’d open up. It’s fun for me, and sometimes I need to talk, too!” he said with a laugh.
Each two-hour session started with a half hour of help with homework followed by a nutritious meal, with food donated by Marquette University. Then the activities started.
Making a volcano out of flour and water was a lot of fun, but it also included talking about how anger can erupt like a volcano. Painting a pot and planting a flower included a discussion on how a plant’s needs to survive can be compared with people’s needs to survive. The Exploding Balloon exercise involved asking the children to blow their negative feelings into a balloon, then talking about what happens when one holds onto those feelings too long.
Working with the children really opened her eyes, Jovan said. Although some evenings were difficult, for instance, when a child would not react the way she had expected.
“But when you do this kind of work you have to recognize the small changes – don’t be upset if the kid doesn’t finish the activity. He’s still coming!
“These are really great kids, but some of them had self-esteem the size of a penny,” she said. So anything the program could do to bolster their egos was much needed.
Jovan said she also learned a lot about children having a reason to be, one of SaintA’s Seven Essential Ingredients of trauma informed care. One boy started out not wanting to do anything except play video games. He had suffered abuse at the hands of a family member and used to soil himself. His two older sisters, who also were in the program, frequently would stress to everyone how important their culture is to the family. They had been placed in different foster homes, and they relished the time they could be with their little brother.
“We really wanted to support that stress on their culture and the family’s relationship,” Jovan said.
Through Terrific Tuesdays, the boy’s leadership skills increased, and he learned to use the bathroom.
The kids themselves talked about how much the program helped them.
“When I first came, I was so scared, and now I’m so very happy with all of you,” one girl told Jovan and Michele.
“When I started knowing them, I started getting happy,” she further explained. “They helped me with my homework, and my actions changed, mostly telling the truth more.”
Another girl said that when she first started coming she had lots of trouble at school.
“Then I learned through the activities that I need to tell an adult if I was having a problem or feeling bad. I learned through the balloons and the volcano not to ball things up, cuz then they’ll just explode.”
That’s music to the ears of Michele, who said services for this age group are lacking.
“Partnering with SaintA gave us the opportunity to get the kids here, and we were really excited to get their support — and all while helping to train the students in the MSW program.”
Perhaps the highlight of the night came when the certificates were all passed out.
“We’ll miss you!” was the chorus from the kids. Lots of hugs and high-fives followed.